Tuesday, April 25, 2006

The art of spec scripts (from someone who's never actually, y'know, written one)

Whenever I'm not sure what to blog about, I ask Daniel what to write about, and he always has ideas of what HE wants to see. So if this sucks, blame him.

But before we get to the subject at hand, vote in the best-of-TV survey. Your country thanks you.

Let's start with the basics. My mom doesn't even know what a spec script is, so we'll start with that.

A spec script is something written to send out to agents, production companies, etc., in the hope of getting work as a film or TV writer (in my case, I'm sending the spec I'm writing to fellowships). Since I know WAY more about TV writing, I'll be talking about that, primarily.

In TV writing, spec scripts usually take the form of prospective episodes of shows already on the air. The spec script you write will never BE aired (usually due to legal issues). What's more, the people on the show you write a spec script for will almost never hire you based on a spec for that show, so if you want to get on staff at, say, Grey's Anatomy, you're better off writing a House than an episode of Grey's. (In my case, I haven't done a lot of thinking about this. Since I'm applying for fellowships, rather than actual jobs, I just need a really, really good script. There's little to no strategy involved.)

But wait! There's more!

Spec pilots, i.e., pilots written on your own with no network involvement, are becoming a bigger deal (especially in tandem with a normal spec script). It's a handy way to show you have ambition and the ability to think of larger ideas. It's also a handy way to look stupid. So handle with care.

There are MILLIONS of posts out there about how to write a spec (here's a good place to start), so rather than tell you all of that minutiae (which, let's not forget, I'm not exactly an authority on), I thought I would talk about how far I've come in the process and what I'm doing right now, in the hopes that it would give you some insight into the process.

I've chosen to spec Supernatural. Why? Well, there are many, many reasons. But I'll outline the main ones briefly.

For starters, the subject matter of Supernatural is something that interests me, so I know a lot about it. I've been reading about weird monsters and ghosts and unexplained phenomena since I was a little kid. So it's not something I have had to do a ton of research on to come up with a good story. If I did a House or something, I would have to pore over medical journals, looking for that ONE case that would make a kick-ass script. Don't get me wrong. I'm sure I could WRITE a House, but it would be a much more painful process (and since this is my first spec, my first time working with others' characters, it's important the process be enjoyable). When I went in to work on Supernatural, I had not just one story idea, I had dozens. I could narrow those down to six or seven, then narrow THOSE down to the one that would be the best possible fit for the show. (And, no, I'm not telling you what that is.)

In addition, Supernatural is a good show, but it's not intimidatingly good. For the most part, it's a show that sets out to have fun and scare you silly. Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood, Lost, The Sopranos, they all have higher goals in mind much of the time. I love all of these shows. To work on one of them would be a dream come true. But, until I have more experience, I simply can't write an episode of them that is BETTER than the episodes that have aired. (The goal with any spec is to write an episode that is absolutely the best episode of said show ever. Now, most don't succeed. The ones that do, get hired. Or fellowshipped. Whatever.) Writing a story of existential crisis on an island in the South Pacific is something I don't feel comfortable trying right now. But writing a scary, semi-gory horror tale? I've been doing that since I was seven.

Now, Supernatural is a real risk in one regard: It's not that popular. When people in the industry read my script, they may be enthralled to read something they haven't seen 1,000,000,000 (I wish I was kidding) other examples of. But they also might say, "What the hell is this?" It's a gamble, but it's one I'm willing to take.

So where am I now in the process?

Right now, I'm logging the better part of a season of the show. I'm also trying to get a hold of some actual scripts from the show.

Logging is the process of breaking down an episode into its component parts, so you can better copy the show in your script. Where does the exposition occur? Where do the big fights occur? Which characters tell the most jokes? You can get as anal as you want (I've been getting, perhaps, too anal).

What's the benefit of this? Well, once you've got enough episodes logged, you can see the underlying formula behind every episode of the show you're working on. Once you've got that, you can lay that structure over your story idea. And once you've done that, the writing gets a LOT easier, especially when you're me, and you can write stuff REALLY fast if you know where you're going. And if you do enough of this, it gets hard to watch TV. Because you start to see the formula underneath every show, even the ones that hide it really well.

So there you go. That's the story of where I am right now. Perhaps once I get the episode finished, I'll talk a little about that process as well.


Moses said...

I know that I want to see more perfect characters and episodes. But Lord knows I'm no Daniel.

Anonymous said...

Sweet J, this was helpful! Thanks.